Code enforcement officers need help. Manatee redevelopment funds could be the answer

Code enforcement officials reminded the Manatee Board of County Commissioners of the laundry list of duties they’re tasked with, highlighting their importance in prime redevelopment areas.

At Tuesday morning’ workshop session, officials acknowledged the code enforcement department’s need for more staff and considered using the Southwest Tax Increment Finance fund to pay for it.

Jeff Bowman, the county’s code enforcement chief, said his department has been understaffed for months. Considering that his team is responsible for 720 square miles of county land, the situation is even more dire.

Right now, there are only eight code enforcement officers covering that area, with three additional officers still in training. According to Bowman, there are still two vacant positions, as well.

“There’s a lot of stress to keep up with the demand, and they’re doing a great job of keeping up with that,” said Bowman.

Commissioners agreed that the work code enforcement does is essential to the upkeep and prosperity of a community, especially the parts they’re looking to redevelop. In order to bolster those efforts, it might be wise to look at using the SWTIF, Commissioner Stephen Jonsson recommended.

“As we try to urbanize more in the Southwest District, we need to make sure we’re protecting the quality of life,” Commissioner Betsy Benac said.

Commissioner Misty Servia requested the agenda item to speak with code enforcement officials about issues she has seen in district, which is largely included in the SWTIF redevelopment zone. In that area, she claims to have seen hundreds of violations, and urged officers to stay on top of the owners and landlords who violate the rules.

“We have neighborhoods that are fragile, really fragile. The efforts of code enforcement make or break them. The success of redeveloping U.S. 41 is going to be strongly related to the neighborhoods around it,” Servia said.

Earlier this year, Geri Lopez, the county’s director of redevelopment and economic opportunity, gave a presentation highlighting potential uses for the SWTIF, which includes economic development and infrastructure related project. She also warned suggested spending the fund wisely to increase the tax base.

Residents at Tuesday’s meeting concurred that code enforcement is an integral part of maintaining neighborhoods throughout the county.

“Code enforcement is the lifeline of these neighborhoods,” said local realtor Norm Lupino. “It’s essential that code enforcement has teeth to keep those homes looking nice. Most people take care of their homes and it’s a select few that don’t, but those few really stand out and can ruin a neighborhood.”

Some of the issues that drag a neighborhood’s reputation down are internal issues, said Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, who urged the board to look at allowing code enforcement to enter residences to make sure they’re meeting codes.

“I think we need to look more at going inside these properties and make sure they’re code compliant. I’ve seen photos and emails of properties that just aren’t livable,” she said.

Servia explained that she has received complaints of boarded windows, holes in roofs and even a bathtub that fell through the floor because of poor living conditions.

“We have to find a way to look at those situations,” Servia said.

Assistant County Attorney Bill Clague advised commissioners that such a resolution would quickly turn into a legal issue that impedes the Fourth Amendment because officers need a warrant to enter a home. Using redevelopment funds as a complement might require a slight tweak, he said, but it’d be a lawful use of the money.

County staff were slated to present an proposed update to property management standards, but it has been postponed to a later date. Commissioners did not take official action Tuesday.